Clever, witty, glamorous, deadly: Virginia Hill was an infamous figure in America’s mid-century organised crime circles. She graced television screens across the country, was described by Time magazine as the “queen of the gangsters’ molls”, and has since been immortalised by Hollywood.
Born during a period of uncertainty and economic hardship in America, Virginia Hill abandoned her rural southern home for the rush of America’s northern cities. There, she made a place for herself among some of the era’s most notable mobsters before retiring to Europe, rich and free.
The mob queen who lived fast and died young, here is the story of Virginia Hill.
From Alabama farm girl to the mafia
Born on 26 August 1916, Onie Virginia Hill’s life began on an Alabama horse farm as one of 10 children. Her parents separated by the time Hill was 8 years old; her father struggled with alcoholism and abused her mother and siblings.
Hill followed her mother to neighbouring Georgia but did not hang around for long. Just a few years later she had fled north to Chicago, where she survived by waitressing and sex work. It was at this time her path crossed with the windy city’s ever-growing crime circles.
Hill waitressed at none other than the mob-run San Carlo Italian Village exhibit during the 1933 Century of Progress Chicago’s World Fair. Coming into contact with numerous members of the Chicago mob, sometimes allegedly as their mistress, she began passing messages and money between Chicago and New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Both the Mafia and police knew that with her insider knowledge, Hill possessed enough knowledge to destroy the East Coast mob. But she did not. Instead, Hill reaped the benefits of her criminal career.
How did she become one of the most powerful and trusted figures in the American underworld? Undoubtedly, Hill was an attractive woman who was aware of her sexual allure. Yet she also possessed a skill for laundering money or stolen objects. Soon, Hill had risen above any other woman in the mob, ranking among the notorious male mobsters of early 20th century United States, including Meyer Lansky, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello and most famously, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel.
Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel was born in Brooklyn in 1906. When he met Virginia Hill, he was already the head of a criminal empire which had been built on bootlegging, betting and violence. His success spread to Las Vegas, opening the Flamingo Hotel and Casino.
Hill had been nicknamed ‘The Flamingo’ by Al Capone‘s bookie because of her long legs, and it was no coincidence Siegel’s enterprise shared the name. The two were madly in love. Siegel and Hill had met in New York in the 1930s while she was couriering for the mob. They met again in Los Angeles, sparking a love affair that would inspire Hollywood.
On 20 June 1947, Siegel was shot multiple times through the window of Hill’s Vegas home. Struck with 30-caliber bullets, he received two fatal head wounds. Siegel’s murder case has never been solved. However, the building of his romantically-named casino was draining money from his mobster lenders. Minutes after the shooting, men working for the Jewish mafia figure Meyer Lansky arrived declaring the enterprise was theirs.
Just 4 days before the shooting, Hill hopped on a flight to Paris, leading to suspicions that she had been warned of the impending attack and had left her lover to his fate.
Celebrity and legacy
In 1951, Hill found herself under the national spotlight. A Tennessee Democrat, Senator Estes T. Kefauver, launched an investigation into the Mafia. Dragged into the courtroom from America’s underground, Hill was one of many notable gambling and organised crime figures testifying in front of television cameras.
On the stand, she testified she “didn’t know anything about anybody”, before pushing aside journalists to leave the building, even slapping one in the face. Her dramatic exit from the courthouse was followed by a hasty departure from the country. Hill was once again under the spotlight for illicit activity; this time for tax evasion.
Now in Europe, Hill lived far from the American press with her son Peter. His father was her fourth husband, Henry Hauser, an Austrian skier. It was near Salzberg in Austria that Hill was found on 24 March 1966, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. She left her coat neatly folded beside where her body was found, alongside a note describing she was “tired of life”.
However, America remained enamoured with the mob queen after her death. She was the subject of a 1974 television film, was portrayed by Annette Bening in a 1991 film about Siegel, and inspired Joan Crawford’s character in the 1950 film noir The Damned Don’t Cry.